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Questions abound before Turkey’s referendum, but not on the ballot

By Michael Hornsby, Berlin
On Sunday, Turkey will vote in a referendum on constitutional changes that, if approved, would consolidate power in the office of the president, currently held by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A recent poll shows the referendum on a knife-edge, with approval of the amendments leading 51.3% to 48.7%. With just three days to go, 10% of respondents to the Gezici Araştırma poll said they were still undecided.

Until last Sunday, Turkish expatriates had been casting their ballots at airports, consulates and embassies abroad.

Among those voting at the Turkish embassy in Vienna was Karabekir Akkoyunlu, an academic at Graz University. After registering with election officials, he was handed an envelope, a stamp, and a piece of paper printed with the words ‘Evet’ (Yes) and ‘Hayır’ (No). But no question.

As a political scientist, Dr. Akkoyunlu was surprised. “Everything about how a referendum question is framed and presented to the public is usually a subject of intense debate. It is unthinkable that there would be no question on the ballot,” he says by phone.

In an online article about this ‘Referendum Without a Question,’ he argues that the vaguer the question facing voters appears, the better it is for the Turkish government. “In order to convince the many conservatives and nationalists who have not warmed to the idea of a ‘Turkish style presidential system, the government is representing April 16 as a tremendous reckoning with internal and external enemies, with the West, Fethullah Gülen, the PKK and even the secular republic.”

Technically, Turkish voters are being asked to vote on a package of eighteen proposed constitutional amendments. These include articles such as lowering the minimum age for running for political office from 25 to 18 years old, and increasing the number of seats in parliament from 550 to 600.

Under the proposed new system, the country’s largely-symbolic president will also become the head of the government as well as the head of state, with the power to rule by decree, dissolve parliament and trigger new elections. Under the new system, the president would appoint two thirds of Turkey’s most senior judges. As well as abolishing the office of Prime Minister and effectively replacing it with a Vice President, the proposed changes would mean that parliament is no longer able to launch investigations, or censure the president’s appointed cabinet.

The historic vote takes place against a backdrop of extraordinary upheavals in Turkey. The country has been in a state of emergency since last summer, when a faction of the military believed to have ties to Fethullah Gülen, a controversial Turkish cleric living in exile in rural Pennsylvania, attempted a military coup against the Erdoğan government.

Tens of thousands of civil servants, academics, police and military have been arrested or removed from their posts in the ensuing crackdown.

Erdoğan’s continued leadership against the internal and external enemies responsible for the coup attempt, and for a wave of terrorist attacks across the country in recent years, form a key part of the ‘Yes’ campaign’s rhetoric. Erdoğan is already de facto the executive type of president proposed in the referendum. “The constitutional amendments put to referendum would in practice make permanent many of the emergency powers the president has already assumed,” Human Rights Watch writes in a briefing.

For Dr. Akkoyunlu, the significance of the proposed changes makes a clear choice on the ballot all the more necessary. Earlier constitutional referendums in Turkey in 2007 and 2010 also lacked a question. “This seems to be something which Turkish institutions have overlooked,” he says. “The drafts in 2007 and 2010 were based on fairly universal liberal democratic tenets. But from then to now, the change has been so huge that even some of the government’s supporters have trouble with the content of the changes. In this particular case, the fact that the opposition hasn’t brought it up astonishes me. It is the opposition who have a clear interest in focusing the debate on the content of the constitutional changes.”

The actual impact of the referendum question on the result may be negligible, Dr. Akkoyunlu concedes. Yet, any voters who are still in two minds when they enter the booth on Sunday will effectively be greeted with two campaign slogans, not the facts of the matter before them.

“It represents a fault in Turkish political society; it is a symptom of the reduction of democracy to a very minimalistic choice between two seemingly extreme opposites, discounting a more nuanced deliberative approach and process,” says Dr. Akkoyunlu.

That said, in a country where over 160 media outlets and publishing houses have closed down since July, and over 120 journalists and media workers are currently in jail pending trial, would a focused debate even be possible?

The European Commission on Democracy Through Law, also known as the Venice Commission, says: “the extremely unfavorable environment for journalism and the increasingly impoverished and one-sided public debate that prevail in Turkey at this point question the very possibility of holding a meaningful, inclusive democratic referendum campaign about the desirability of the amendments.”

There is no objective way to consider it a fair referendum,” says Dr. Akkoyunlu on this subject. “I would question whether we consider it a democratic referendum. The consensus among my colleagues is that Turkey has become a competitive authoritative regime, not a democracy. That means that there is electoral competition, but it is unfair, unequal, and tilted to the advantage of the incumbents because they make the rules.”

In the first three weeks of March, President Erdoğan and politicians from his ruling AKP party were given almost 70 hours of air time on Turkish state television, according to Cumhuriyet newspaper. The opposition CHP were given just over three and a half hours of air time, while the pro-Kurdish HDP received just one minute. 13 HDP members of parliament have been arrested, including the party’s two co-chairs. There have been multiple reports of No campaigners being intimidated and arrested. Others have found themselves literally in the dark, due to sudden electricity outages before campaign events.

“10 or 15 years ago this would have caused immense problems between Turkey and its western partners. And back then, Turkey would have taken them seriously and not gone down that path,” says Dr. Akkoyunlu. But today, the war in Syria and the Turkey-EU refugee deal may be encouraging foreign diplomats to take a lighter touch. Moreover, in an era of Brexit and Trump, when Marie Le Pen is a serious contender for election in France and Viktor Orban attempts to close a university in Hungary, it may also be a question of legitimacy.

“The reduction of democracy to the ballot box, and the ballot box to a constrained selection seems to be how democracy has been understood and practiced in more advanced democracies as well,” says Dr. Akkoyunlu.

“The forces of liberal democracy are being challenged in their heartland too.”

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